Neoliberalism and the fascist danger: A reply to some left critics

antitrump

By JOE SIMS

The Communist Party’s anti-right electoral policy has been criticized for not addressing the dangers posed by neoliberalism.  In particular the neoliberal brand associated with folks like the Clintons, is seen as costing jobs, depressing wages and shredding the safety net. The resulting anger it’s believed has opened the door for demagogues like Donald Trump thereby contributing to an increase in the fascist danger.

In this regard, one writer on the Party’s Facebook page recently asserted, “It’s the neoliberal policies of Clinton and the Democrats that made Trump possible.” Another argued in a similar vein, “I’m also aware that neoliberalism isn’t going to curtail neo-fascism – it is only going to make it a more imminent threat.”

The writers have a point. Neoliberalism – austerity, privatization, free trade, deregulation, and budget cuts – have in large measure guided economic policy in the advanced capitalist countries for decades. And it’s done a number on the working class and poor.

At once an economic policy and a way of looking at the world, neoliberalism got its start as a right-wing critique of the New Deal’s Keynesian foundations. Keynesianism, named after the British economist John Maynard Keynes, holds that increased government spending on jobs and infrastructure and lower taxes, increases demand and stimulates the economy.

Post-war shrinking profit rates, economic sluggishness and government deficits prompted the neoliberal critique. Instead of spending on health care, education and other social programs, the neoliberals proposed cutting corporate taxes, and eliminating government programs or privatizing them.

In its pure form, the doctrine draws inspiration and practice more from the Republican right than old school Democratic economic orthodoxy. That said, it’s become a ruling class policy practiced to varying degrees by Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. and political parties across the spectrum in Europe, Australia, Canada, and other countries.

The roots and results of neoliberalism

Neoliberalism’s domestic tour de force came with Ronald Reagan’s trickle down economics and his budget director David Stockman’s savage cuts. On the Democratic side, even before Reagan, Jimmy Carter took a turn with austerity by cutting the federal housing budget. It was with the advent of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) and Bill Clinton’s candidacy that the policies of neoliberalism became embraced more widely. Clinton, influenced by Reagan’s success sought to harmonize aspects of right and left policies in an alternative “third way.”

Indeed, with the DLC what started off as a policy model for the right became the dominant set of ideas for the political center, drawing with it important sections of the liberal left. Today acceptance of tenets of the neoliberal narrative are everywhere even if few will call themselves a neoliberal.

However neoliberalism’s prevalence also owes a debt to a section of the left. Recall, for example, the French Socialists’ imposition of austerity measures in the early 1980s, a time when Communist ministers joined the Mitterrand administration and held governmental posts – a policy for which the French Communist Party paid heavily in subsequent elections. And then there was the role played by Marxism Today, the now defunct theoretical journal of the Communist Party of Great Britain which gave a platform to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s New Labor (New Labor is the British equivalent to the DLC) and contributed to the rightward turn in the British Labor Party.

It is important to point out that these policies did not occur in a vacuum. They emerged out the real circumstances of the times – the arms race and the corresponding huge expansion of military spending and pressures on national budgets are cases in point. But more importantly, deep systemic crises of the capitalist system underlay the neo-liberal cures: the industrial crisis of the 1970s (e.g. the collapse of the steel industry), the recessions of the 80s and 90s, financialization, globalization, the dot.com bubble, and most recently the subprime crisis which prompted the Great Recession.

During this period, there was a discernible pull to the right electorally and in public discourse that would at first blush give credence to the neoliberals’ culpability for creating conditions that provided fodder for right-wing and even fascist thinking. Reagan’s election, the attack on affirmative action with the Bakke decision, the breaking of the air traffic controllers union are examples.

“Neoliberalism is a ruling class policy.”

The Moral Majority, Heritage Foundation, and other outfits were birthed during this period which helped lay the basis for the Chamber of Commerce-inspired right-wing takeover of the Republican Party.  At the same time, the edifice of the New Deal and Civil Rights gains of the 1960s were attacked. This period also marked the beginnings of the successful effort to redistribute wealth upwards by means of tax policy and budget cuts.

At the same time, down below trends in the opposite direction began to make themselves felt. Pro-labor, pro-peace, and anti-racist majorities began to appear in reaction to the challenges presented by both Republican and Democratic administrations. Huge democratic shifts in public opinion began to develop on issues relating to race, gender, LGBTQ rights, immigration, and other important social issues.

To what degree were neoliberal policies responsible for these opposing trends? On the one hand there’s little doubt that they played some role; on the other it’s proven quite difficult to draw a straight line between economic policy and their  social reflections. Life is exceedingly complex and growing increasingly so with myriad factors coming into play.

Take racism for example. The neoliberals were not of one mind: those on the right championed the Republican’s Southern Strategy (targeting southern white Democrats), welfare queen charges, and the criminalization of black and brown youth; those in the center and on the left, while in some cases capitulating to the aforementioned, promoted what they considered to be an anti-racist “everyone-is-equal” corporate multiculturalism.

In this milieu, complex and contradictory trends were emerging. On the hand, frontal attacks on labor, hyper segregation, gentrification, broken window policing, mass incarceration; on the other, huge shifts in demographics and in the workforce as the shift to a service economy deepened. Add to these the developments in the cultural and social arena; the impact of Hip Hop culture, sports, and in the last quarter century the growth of the internet and social networks. Last but not least are changes in the political arena, such as the election of thousands of black and Latino public officials – many in majority white districts.

Centrist sins: Real and imagined

Notwithstanding these contradictory trends some like Chris Hedges and our Facebook comrades, lay blame for the increasing racism and xenophobia that is fueling fascist thinking squarely at the feet of centrist neoliberals like the Clintons. Hedges argues:

“College-educated elites, on behalf of corporations, carried out the savage neoliberal assault on the working poor. Now they are being made to pay. Their duplicity—embodied in politicians such as Bill and Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama—succeeded for decades…”

He continues:

“There are tens of millions of Americans, especially lower-class whites, rightfully enraged at what has been done to them, their families and their communities. They have risen up to reject the neoliberal policies and political correctness imposed on them by college-educated elites from both political parties: Lower-class whites are embracing an American fascism.”

Hedges does us a service by pointing to the seriousness of the growing fascist threat. However it’s unclear why he centers his fire at centrist Democrats when – unlike their New Labor British counterparts –  they’ve never claimed to be on the left or placed themselves outside of the prevailing capitalist world order but have been among its staunchest defenders – albeit with a softer, gentler “I-feel-your-pain” tone.

Perhaps it’s because that at times, while portraying themselves as champions of progressive causes and advocates of labor, civil, and human rights, these DLC types capitulated under the pressure of the right. This has led Hedges and others to accuse them of providing a cover for right-wing policies, a charge that cannot be wholly dismissed.

Still, the judgement seems misplaced. The fiercest attacks on jobs and living standards that Hedges is properly concerned with are coming from the Chamber of Commerce and the GOP right. Even the Clinton capitulation on welfare reform – as terrible as it was and remains – has to be understood within the context of Gingrich’s Contract With America and GOP majorities in the House and Senate – not that Clinton should be let off the hook!

In addition, Hedges description of the working-class white reaction to these policies is also dubious. The bulk of Trump’s support comes not from “lower class whites,” but arguably from those with higher incomes. This is not to say that Trump is without hardcore support among some working-class white elements. A survey carried out by Working America estimates that this involves approximately one-third of white working-class voters in swing states.

What is fascism?

This is important because historically the mass base of fascism has not been among the working class per se, but among lower middle class and professional elements who in times of crisis are pushed into its ranks.

Here one must also make a distinction between fascism’s base of support, that is, the demographic where it finds resonance, and its source, that is, the class or classes that are responsible for its promotion and implementation. While drawing numbers from the ranks of middle strata, fascism’s source lies not here but far above in the lofty domains of Trump Tower and other rarified habitations of the ruling class.

This is significant because above all else fascism, while a mass movement, when fully developed represents a form of capitalist rule. It is a type of government, in a word, a dictatorship. In this regard, Georgi Dimitrov, a leader of the international Communist movement during the 1930s, warned against treating fascism as a movement of the petit bourgeoisie, i.e., of the middle class capturing the state, but rather as the “open, terrorist  dictatorship of the most reactionary sections of finance capital.”

“Fascism is the open, terrorist  dictatorship of the most reactionary sections of finance capital.”

This brings us once again to raise the question of wherein lies the fascist danger: what is its source? Does it arise from the employment of and reaction to a policy – in this case neoliberalism – or does it come from somewhere else?

Consider first of all that monopoly capitalism – imperialism – is inherently conservative and reactionary. In fact for Lenin, imperialism was “reaction all down the line.” Capitalism carries with it an inherent and even inevitable backward moving trend. Why? Because notwithstanding all of the powerful countercurrents in the opposite direction arising out of the process of production, and the creative innovation and scientific genius they entail, the system must preserve and justify itself and bind citizens to its imperatives. And this involves old appeals to race, nation, gender, God and country.

And it must do so in the midst of ongoing crises: crises of overproduction, environmental crisis, recession, depression, and war. And the impulse towards fascism occurs just when these crises become most severe. Historically, this happens often, but not always, when a movement arises to challenge the system itself, as in the case of Germany in the early 1930s. However, it can also arise to prevent the growth of such a movement. Here the tragedy of Italy under Mussolini in the early 1920s comes to mind.

But fascism, as Dimitrov suggests, is not simply a spontaneous reaction to events, anger at policies, angst, or insecurity. These sentiments must be organized. They must be imposed. And achieving such organization and imposition require the necessary means to do so, means available only to a small section the population – the class today popularly called the 1 percent, or more precisely, the most reactionary section of it.

Today there is a strong relation between neoliberal economic policy and white supremacist social conservatism as twin strategies of the capitalist class.  Examples in Europe, most notably the UK and France, show this even more clearly: the ultra-right Front National in France became a mass party when it fused opposition to the neoliberal policies of the EU with national chauvinism, and a similar argument could be made around UK Independence Party and the Brexit vote in the UK.

Organizing the basis for fascism in America

Similar trends are occurring here in this year’s election: the basis for fascism is being steadily organized with the passing of each day at the highest levels in the land, in some cases consciously, in others unconsciously. This development is not new. Take the Tea Party, for example. This “astro turf” movement has been organized and funded by big business now for several years. Its rallying cry: racism, hatred of the president, and the defeat of his agenda.

Yet another source is right-wing radio. For decades now, it has been a constant source of anti-government, pro-business, anti-labor, racist and homophobic garbage. Even a figure like Wisconsin’s conservative Charlie Sykes has been taken aback by the Frankenstein he and others have helped create. In this regard, Politico writes: “Sykes’ many arguments with listeners over Donald Trump’s serial outrages have exposed in much of his audience a vein of thinking—racist, anti-constitutional, maybe even fascistic—that has shaken Sykes.”

And then there’s the right-wing think tanks, blogs, and websites that have pursued a 24-hour stream of anti-immigrant xenophobia, racism, and misogyny. The recent appointment of the head of Breibart News, Stephen Bannon, to the leading position in the Trump campaign was their crowning achievement. The event prompted the Clinton campaign to warn the country of the danger now posed by the likes of the alt-right and KKK who, according to the Democratic nominee, have effectively taken over the GOP.

“White supremacy has been mainstreamed.”

But it doesn’t stop there. The mainstream media has become deeply involved. How? By mainstreaming and legitimizing white supremacy. Think that’s an overstatement? Consider that CNN’s former anchor Soledad O’Brien recently took the network to task for doing precisely this:“If you look at Hillary Clinton’s speech where she basically pointed out that what Donald Trump has done — actually quite well — has normalized white supremacy.”

Pointing to the complicity of her former employer, she continues, “I’ve seen on-air, white supremacists being interviewed because they are Trump delegates,” she noted. “And they do a five minute segment, the first minute or so talking about what they believe as white supremacists. So you have normalized that.”

Thus, just as the normalization of anti-Semitism and racism was a precondition for the rise Hitler, so too today with the normalization of white supremacy and the rise of Trump. The same can be said for sexism.

And why has the media been so complicit? One doesn’t have to look far to find the answer: it’s good for the corporate bottom line. Speaking of Trump, CBS Chief Executive Officer Leslie Moonves put it this way: “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS,” he said of the presidential race. Moonves went on, saying, “Man, who would have expected the ride we’re all having right now?… The money’s rolling in and this is fun.”

Fascism and neoliberalism are both products of capitalism

What conclusions then can be drawn from the foregoing?

First, that both fascism and neoliberalism are products of monopoly capitalism. Both emerge out of its incessant drive to maximize profits and overcome crisis, efforts which lead to ever-increasing reactionary measures.

Second, that the two therefore have their origins in the ruling class: neoliberalism as an economic policy and fascism as a form of class rule and government.

Third, that neither are inevitable, notwithstanding capitalism’s inherently conservative tendencies. A policy can be chosen or discarded, as can a form of government, depending on the relative strength of the actors involved and balance of class forces at any given time.

Fourth, that neoliberal policy is adaptable. It has been employed by Republicans, Democrats, social democrats, and fascists, as in the case of Chile. While it contributes to fascism’s growth, neoliberalism is not a necessary precondition for it.

Blocking the fascist threat

Does the attempt then to prevent the ascendance of a Trump by the election of a centrist Democrat with a neoliberal background assist fascism’s growth?

To the degree that the Clinton campaign and the broad coalition supporting it challenges the raw racism, extreme nationalism, and the anti-constitutional and undemocratic underpinnings of the Trump campaign, it cannot but help push back against the danger. If it does not, then the answer is obvious.

If after the election under the guise of bipartisanship backtracking occurs on the TPP, the minimum wage, privatizing Social Security etc, the problems associated with the rise of Trump can only grow worse. But first he must be defeated.

Exposing Trump is critical. The GOP nominee represents a danger of a different type. The U.S. people and many of our comrades on the left are not accustomed to fighting a danger of this kind. Trump is seen as a performer, a reality T.V. star, a larger-than-life expert brander, a not-so-dangerous buffon. But buffoonery aside, the forces lurking in and around his campaign are no joke.

However, a winning campaign cannot only focus on the negatives but must provide a vision of how to move forward. Here, the Sanders campaign provided an important lesson: the fight against austerity, trade pacts, and budget cuts, the demand to increase Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid; the call to make university education free – in other words, the fight against neoliberal policy is key to sparking the kind of movement necessary to defeat Trump and the hordes of racist moneybags backing him.

But even that is not enough. During the campaign, Black Lives Matter had to take the stage and demand an end to police murder, violence, and mass incarceration. The immigrant rights movement had to demand comprehensive reform and a path to citizenship. The LGBTQ movement had to insist on marriage equality and basic rights for all.

Labor – and this is critical – too had to make its presence felt by continuing to develop its own independent structures and offering support for only those candidates that signed off on its agenda.

But all of this taken together may not be enough. Added to it must be the demand for peace, an end to military intervention, and cutting the military budget. So far, Mrs. Clinton has at best demonstrated a tin ear to this issue. But here the movement to defeat Trump cannot be discouraged and must keep the pressure on.

2016 can also be a setback for neoliberalism

According to a number of accounts, the neoliberal agenda has been set back in this election cycle and is on the defensive in many places. Witness Mrs. Clinton’s shift on the TPP after initially supporting it or adoption of many progressive planks in the Democratic Party platform.

All can agree that neoliberalism can and must be defeated.

The time is ripe for doing so. Many of the policy’s champions fear its time has come to an end. On the other side of the Atlantic, Tony Blair recently lamented, “It’s a very open question whether the type of politics I represent really has had its day or not.”

Another British writer, Martin Jacques, the former editor of Marxism Today, in whose pages Tony Blair’s own writings once appeared, agrees: “The western economy has stagnated and is now approaching its lost decade, with no end in sight.”

The mass public rejection of trade pacts, anger at big banks, and the huge growth of inequality has convinced both that the neoliberal policy itself is no longer sustainable. Crocodile tears? Perhaps. But what’s sure is that the force that Frederick Engels called the “mole of history” – class – is reasserting itself with a vengeance. That is at the heart of the anti-establishment politics of the present.

“Neoliberalism can and must be defeated.”

The challenge today is ensuring that the two movements in U.S. electoral politics, those representing Clinton and the anti-establishment political revolution of Sanders, join together. When that happens watch out!

If anything, the last several years have proven that the stages of political life are not easily predictable, neat, or nicely circumscribed. Before Occupy Wall Street, who could have predicted that the neoliberal narrative of deficit reduction would disappear from the airways to be replaced by the demands of the 99 percent? And before Sanders declared his candidacy, who would have thought that a self-declared socialist could seriously contend for the Democratic nomination?  Needless to say, the same must be said of the election of President Obama. To paraphrase Goethe, “Theory is grey, but the tree of life, ever green.”

It may well be that the anti-extreme right stage of the struggle might coalesce with the anti-monopoly stage rather quickly and bring about a new political alignment. This however will be an academic question if Trump prevails.

If that is so and with neoliberalism having reached its nadir, the question arises with what will it be replaced? While seeking an answer, let’s unite to defeat Trump.

Photo: Creative Commons 3.0

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